Masterclass in storytelling aboard a ‘ship of fools’

Masterclass in storytelling aboard a ‘ship of fools’

By PAYEL MAJUMDAR | | 3 June, 2015
Amitav Ghosh. | Photo: Ulf Andersen
Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy comes to a spectacular finish with this finely crafted tale set at the eve of the Opium Wars. These books stand in the front row of Indian literature, writes Payel Majumdar.

The Ibis trilogy is a masterstroke on the canvas of modern Indian literature, and the Flood of Fire a jewel in Amitav Ghosh's post-colonial world. Ghosh is a master at plotting: details of the book's plot comes together like a detangled fishing net, and every incident, when joined together with the rest, brings the grand narrative alive, as though it were happening right in front of our eyes. This is the third installment of this trilogy, and it provides a fitting end to the drama that Ghosh had set in his two past books; it delivers its fair share of suspense, and complexities before seeking resolution.

For the uninitiated, the previous books of the trilogy; Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire are about the opium trade between the British Raj and China: the British merchants and the East India Company being the suppliers; the entire Southeast Asia, especially China, being the consumers and India being the ground on which opium was produced. The trilogy began with a dream seen in an opium haze of sorts, by a woman farmer in the fields of Ghazipur. While narrating the opium story of the 19th century, the Flood of Fire's parallel personal stories see a surreal turns of events, as though it's the same opium dream continued in this book. It is a retelling of history studied through representative accounts of the ship's travellers and the people who populate their world, told in the time-frames of three journeys that the ship undertakes between India and China.

A century-old tale seems an allegory for recent geo-political situation and events, and you don’t have to stretch your imagination too far to draw parallels between the Opium Wars that led up to the Treaty of Nanking and the American war for oil in Iraq, or the First World War for that matter.

The passengers, and consequently the characters' identities, range from Ghazipur's opium farmers, Anglo-Indians from Kolkata, inter-racial sailors who have risen to become merchants, Parsi businessmen and women from Mumbai, a Vaishnav bookkeeper to an English merchant, botanists, prisoners from Kolkata travelling to the dreaded Kala Pani jail, Chinese-Indian opium smokers, nautch girls from Kolkata's bazaars, bhishties (water carriers), coolies and other men of trades that are now obscure, sepoys from the Madras Artillery, Chinese businessmen, boatmen and officials, orphan children who are fifers in the army, gun lascars... Ghosh could well have filled several other books with the stories of these people.

Fate plays a big role in how events are narrated in the book, with curious twists of plot bringing about karmic resolution to both errant and deserving candidates. In the current book, characters from the previous two books re-enter and exit each other's lives with their life-paths intertwining unwittingly, as Ghosh raises the stakes for all the characters. Even after characters have died (or been bumped off) their ghostly presence and the shadows of their past alters the current playing field for the other characters. If the trilogy was a game of chess, Ghosh is playing from both sides as the omniscient narrator.

The Ibis acts as the centre-stage for this opium fueled epic, one among numerous ships plying the route from Ghazipur's factories, supplying raw opium to China's shores to an increasingly opium-addicted population. Every pawn in this vicious slice of history has been captured on Ghosh's incredibly rich tapestry of the 19th century sea trade. The Ibis trilogy escapes the ditches of nationalist, fundamentalist ideology that historians of today emulate and fight against: one of the primary pitfalls that post-colonialism, in the Indian context, has escaped. By looking both eastwards as well as westwards in a non-exclusionary manner, Ghosh's books escape being slotted in either one of these political slots, and in my opinion the books' comprehensive nature and exclusivity derives from this more than anything else.

Ships and water provide movement to the story; they also provide it with a metaphor for its fluidity. The Ibis and its sister ships are not merely the stage for betrayals and separations of epic proportions between lost family and lovers; they also play a part in bringing them together.

As mentioned in the epilogue, a major chunk of the narrative has been recreated from the archives of one erstwhile Bengali zamindar Neel (who finds himself in "Maha Chin" under extraordinary circumstances) as well as his son Raju, both of whom experienced the Opium Wars first hand in China. Ghosh has acknowledged the meticulous nature of both father and son's accounts, and it seems the records were the inspiration behind the trilogy. Ghosh credits their memoirs for being able to piece together the entire story. Procuring documents about military matters of that period did not hurt either; these were then classified information, but were now available to him from five libraries across the world. War reportage has suffered from the often unreliable nature of recounted events, but there is no uncertainty in Ghosh's voice-of-god narrative.

A century-old tale seems an allegory for recent geo-political situation and events, and you don't have to stretch your imagination too far to draw parallels between the Opium Wars that led up to the Treaty of Nanking and the American war for oil in Iraq, or the First World War for that matter. The universal nature of wars between two principalities is articulated in the following lines in the book, "How was it possible that a small number of men, in the span of a few minutes, could decide the fate of millions of people yet unborn? How was it possible that the outcome of those brief moments could determine who would rule whom, who would be rich or poor, master or servant, for generations to come? Nothing could be a greater injustice, yet such had been the reality ever since human beings walked on earth."

The 19th century-world that Ghosh has represented is marked by its migratory nature. The central themes of migration, post-colonialism and nationalism in the light of the previous two realities of modern life persists in this novel; a leitmotif in all Ghosh novels. Does the book hold its own, without the other two books to back it up? It is a rich tale on its own, but go read the first two to realise the scale and the complexity of this incredible story.

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